Social class in Great Expectations and its effect upon the characters

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“Great Expectations is primarily a novel about the social class divisions amongst characters which ultimately reflects upon their outlook and perception of others”. Explore this concept and explain how Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ illuminates this idea.

Dickens explores the concept of social class from the opening chapters and emphasises how it has a profound effect on the central characters in the novel. The first sentence in the novel is significant in that Pip has named himself as a result of his inability to pronounce his real name; ‘I called myself Pip and came to be called Pip’. Pip’s  inability to pronounce his real name, referred to in the opening sentence of the novel, signifies his initial lack of education and reflects his social class. Moreover, as the novel develops, Dickens highlights Pip’s pursuit of becoming a ‘gentleman’ by assigning a different identity to him as he ascends the social ladder; Herbert Pocket re-names him ‘Handel’, which suggests that now Pip has left behind his working class background; he must now adopt a new persona, albeit a character that has a very superficial outlook.  This clearly indicates Dickens’ desire to illustrate the social class divisions perhaps not only in the novel, but also in Victorian England and consequently how it has the potential to alter a person’s individuality.

Another example of the social class divisions within the novel is indicated by Joe’s arrival at Pip’s opulent apartment, when Pip has been exposed to his ‘great expectations’. Pip is nevertheless, despondent by the news of Joe coming to visit; ‘I had the sharpest sensitiveness as to his being seen by Drummle’. This once again is emphatic in showing the developing contrast in social status amongst the two characters. However, not only does Pip treat Joe differently, Joe also treats Pip differently, this is due to their now more apparent social division. Joe refers to Pip as ‘sir’, which only adds to the already awkward atmosphere that Dickens creates to portray the social divisions that now exist between the pair and which ultimately affect the characters’ personalities. Furthermore, the colloquial language used by Joe throughout the novel and in the passage; ‘life is made of ever so many partings welded together... Diwisions among such must come...’ emphasise his working class background and his lack of education. Additionally, the metaphor that he is a common blacksmith and Pip is a goldsmith present the difference in social class had how it ultimately brought upon their separation. Similarly, a connection between the contrasts in social status is illuminated in, ‘The picture of Dorian Gray’ with Dorian’s arrival at the opium den. Wildes’ presentation of the opium den; ‘a tattered green curtain that swayed and shook in the gusty wind... Greasy reflectors of ribbed tin backed them, making quivering discs of light’, reveals the contrast between Dorian’s aristocratic lifestyle and the slums of the opium den. The adjectives included in the passage, such as ‘Greasy’, ‘tattered’ and ‘quivering’ create the image of poverty and social dismay. In addition to this, Dorian’s diction and tone towards the other characters can be interpreted as degrading and indicate his hierarchical attitude in that it signifies his belief of that those of a lower social status are essentially inferior.

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Whereas Dickens highlights the social class divisions between the protagonist and Joe, he equally draws close attention to the similar divisions amongst the convicts, Magwitch and Compeyson. The emphasis placed on social class is again stressed through the convicts’ trial, both men are arrested for the same crime but Compeyson ultimately escapes punishment solely because of his social status. Here, a clear comparison can be made with the character of Dorian Gray in Wilde’s novel. In the same way that Dickens uses the convicts to portray the differing views and perceptions amongst the social classes, Wilde concentrates on Dorian and ...

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